So far, the roulette wheel has decided that I need more TV dramas in my life. Even the reality shows I have done are based on the drama of competition. It’s fine; dramas are great, and they can actually be funnier at times than comedies. Still, there is nothing like a good comedy, and this week’s TV Roulette selection, Comedy Central’s South Park, is one of the best. So without further ado, let’s take a dive into the lives of the citizens of South Park, Colorado, right after the rundown.
TV Roulette Week 8
South Park; ‘Truth and Advertising’ Season 19, Episode 9
December 2nd, 2015
Have I Seen This Show Before?
If So, How Much?
Honestly, I don’t even know. I haven’t been watching South Park consistently for quite some time now, but I still watch it whenever I catch it on. So probably something like most of the episodes from the first 12 to 14 seasons, and then a number of episodes for the seasons after that (including this current season). So I have watched a lot, but definitely not all of it.
Okay, now I am getting a little annoyed, because dear Lord, how many penultimate episodes can TV Roulette possibly get me to watch? Apparently not enough, as ‘Truth and Advertising’ serves as season 19’s penultimate episode before next week’s season finale, and let me just say this was the most penultimately penultimate episode yet (at this point just expect the word penultimate to be written from here to eternity). This episode is all about set-up, to the point where it almost doesn’t have time to tell any jokes. Some might consider that a problem, because, you know, South Park is a comedy.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any jokes. The continuous runner of the boys and then later the adults continually finding their attempts to research PC culture thwarted by ads that convince them to do anything else is quite humorous, but otherwise the show doesn’t really try too hard to be funny. Other than the terrible Caitlyn Jenner runner where she keeps hitting people with her car. (I understand the point of the joke, but man, after a while it felt like a bad Family Guy gag). Combine this with the fact that South Park has been engaging in a rather ambitious connective narrative this season, and, well, this episode was a little weird to watch.
There is a lot of exposition in this episode as the show desperately tries to get everything in place for the finale, and I’ll admit, if I had actually watched this season this set up might have worked, but without those reference points it all felt a little overwhelming. That’s not entirely surprising–as I have written before, the biggest job of a penultimate (there we go) episode is to set the table for the big events of the finale, and at that, ‘Truth and Advertising’ succeeds. Too bad the episode couldn’t take more time to be more than an exposition dump, or at all an episode that could stand on its own. So what to make of ‘T and A’? It does its job, but there is little to actually talk about from it specifically. But I can talk about the nature of this season of South Park, and what it means for the current state of television’s half-hour show.
Continuing with the theme of repeating myself from earlier reviews, I might as well reiterate that television is in a weird transitional period right now. The medium is facing mounting changes from all around, and is doing what it can to evolve with the times. This has caused some issues, especially for the hour-long drama. See, the problem with there being so much to watch now is that shows get a lot less time to figure things out. A bad first impression is hard for a show to ever fully recover from, no matter how it tries. Agents of Shield started off terribly, and despite slowly morphing into a really good show, it’s never been the ratings hit it should have been (although it does have its fans). Another show that’s tried to reinvent itself is Halt and Catch Fire, which was supposed to be AMC’s next Mad Men; the show didn’t work in its first season, and even though it has apparently refocused and righted the ship, viewers simply can’t be bothered to give it another try. They’ve already moved on to newer and shinier shows. This sort of thing has basically meant that more and more dramas have had to really make their pilot episodes pop in order to draw as much interest as possible. You’d think this would also encourage these shows to take more risks to try and stand out more, but you’d be wrong.
A funny thing has happened, though. As more and more attention has been paid to the hour-long format, less and less has been paid to the half-hour. Increasingly it is the half-hour show that is really pushing the envelope by realizing that comedy and drama no longer have to be as separate as people once thought. Probably nothing shows this more than Louie, which is labeled as a comedy but is really just a creative vehicle for Louie CK to talk about whatever he wants, whether it is funny or not. And Louie is not alone, now that more and more shows have been taking its lead and running with it. You’re the Worst is one of the funniest shows on television, but has spent much of this season providing one of the most realistic portrayals of a person suffering from depression in television history. Master of None is Aziz Ansari using Louie CK’s format to tell really cutting yet touching stories about sex, race, and family. Casual effortlessly blends family and relationship drama with a dark sensibility. Those are just the tip of the iceberg, as the half-hour format is increasingly being used to tell ambitious stories. Assuming it is not some sitcom on CBS–but even that network has pushed its own envelope with shows like Mom and Life in Pieces, so maybe I should forgive the network for letting Two and Half Men exist for so so long.
What does this have to do with South Park? It’s long been a show that has used comedy to attack any issue you can think of, but one thing it hadn’t tried was telling a long-form story. Which is not surprising, because that is just not what cartoons like this do. The Simpsons demonstrated that, unlike actors, cartoon characters never need to age, so you can tell animated, episodic stories for years with very little need for change. It’s a good formula–The Simpsons is now in its 27th season, and South Park is in its 19th. It certainly keeps a show going. But eventually things start to go stale. This year, South Park decided to shake things up, so out went the show’s normal episodic structure, and in went this season’s long-form storytelling, a structure that has allowed the show to build its caustic insights over the course of the season, to increasing effect. This also means the show can choose to attack something that may not be as obviously problematic as the issues it has attacked in the past. In this case, the show has been dealing with PC culture, or more precisely, the ingeniousness that such culture can breed at times when people care more about sounding like they care about something than actually caring about it.
This has allowed South Park to attack many different related issues, and in this episode it was, as the title suggests, advertising. Advertising has become an overwhelming part of our lives, and South Park did a good job of stating that the more we as a culture try to block it out, the better advertisers have become at finding ways to expose us to it. Sure, in real life ads have not become sentient, but the idea of living ads isn’t nearly as far-fetched as one would think. Jimmy’s speech about evolving ads works quite well, but at the same time the narrative weight on this episode means that a lot of the jokes are really, really on the nose and not up to the stellar standard that South Park normally meets.
Still, the biggest thing this episode does well is cementing the rift between Stan and Kyle. The threat of PC Principal has clearly taken its toll on the best friends (or maybe now former best friends). What makes it work is that even without seeing the rest of the season, the conversation between them seems rife with history. There’s a weight to their words that manages to have a strong emotional impact. Combined with the tense atmosphere the episode is able to build, and the episode does prove entertaining, even when it’s not particularly funny. South Park has proven in its older age that it is willing to take chances, and it is refreshing to see, even if this particular episode really just served as a way to make next week’s finale work at what is hopefully optimum funny.
Notes and Observations:
- The group I am just going to dub the League of Newscasters is quite funny, and the commitment of the show to having them speak like they are on the air no matter the conversation is also humorous.
- Also funny: the League’s point to Jimmy that he is thinking with his dick when Jimmy thinks he can trust the living ad, Leslie. Especially considering they are, of course, proven totally correct.
- Kyle, when someone asks for your social security number, that’s a red flag. Maybe you shouldn’t trust her.
- Of course Randy would be the one to totally support PC culture, until he realizes it is no longer helping him. As always, Stan’s dad is a moron.
- At this point I have no idea what the season end game is for Matt Stone and Trey Parker. They could really go in multiple directions, and as much as this episode sets up the finale, it does very little to reveal what will actually be happening in the next episode.
- Bob Brady swearing he will no longer shoot anyone, and then immediately shooting one of the newscasters in the shoulder should not have been nearly as funny as it was. The episode could really have used more moments like that.
Episode Grade: B-
Would I Watch More?
At some point I probably will go back and watch this whole season, especially considering how many good things I have heard about it. Being able to watch an episode that is not burdened with exposition to the hilt will also be nice; so, yeah. I imagine I will watch more South Park for as long as it is on the air, but probably never again on a consistent basis, if I am being honest.
It has been illuminating returning to the land of South Park once more, and I can’t wait to see what the roulette wheel will call for next. Most shows are going on hiatus after next week, so look for it to be the last week before things start to get a little weird, even in roulette land. Until then, I am going to get some chicken nuggets and try on some new sneakers.